My wife and I must be channeling each other. Shortly after Thanksgiving, she slipped her first disk. Since then she has spent much of her time in pain ranging from bad to excruciating. When you have pain that pervasive and acute, you get desperate. Unable to get physical therapy right away she ran to a chiropractor hoping for relief. Not much was found from either her chiropractor or her physical therapist. An MRI revealed a badly herniated disk. A shot directly on the affected ligament seems to have reduced a lot of the pain. She now bears some resemblance to her pre-Thanksgiving self. More shots are on her horizon and if they do not work spinal surgery may follow and with it the possibility of permanent injury.
Meanwhile my back has started hurting too although thankfully not so acutely. For a few weeks as we men often do, I ignored the pain and hoped it would go away. Eventually the pain reached a point where I grudgingly decided I should be seen. A nurse practitioner placed her finger in places inside my body that no human ever should and diagnosed prostatitis. Two weeks on Cipro though did not seem to alleviate the dull pain in my lumbar region. My doctor then guessed that I was probably dealing with lower back pain from sitting too much, as us office workers tend to do. A week on Naproxen and muscle relaxants seemed to help a bit but the pain has not gone away. It is time to consult with a urologist. Meanwhile, I convinced my boss to order me a fancy Herman Miller Aeron chair.
I had been warned that when you are fifty-something these sorts of medical mysteries become more routine than atypical. Somehow, I thought that I would be the exception. With enough regular aerobics and weight lifting at my local Gold’s Gym, I believed that I could beat the odds. Sadly, I seem to be suffering from self-delusion. My challenge now is to keep my medical issues minor rather than assume that with the right diet and exercise I can escape them altogether. My warranty has expired. In short, I am doomed.
I know intellectually that I will die someday. I cope with this morbid fact via the typical human means: denial and distraction. The sad fact about your warranty expiring is that neither denial nor distraction is possible. To deny your back problems while keeled over makes you worthy of derision. Age spots appear unwanted on my skin, which I had so carefully protected all these years with sunscreens and lotions. I need reading glasses to read anything closer than two feet from me. If it is more than two feet away from me then the font had better be large or I cannot read it at all. I used to have the ears of a dog. When some ultra high pitch entered my ear canal, I was frozen like a deer in a car’s headlights. This is no longer a problem because I can no longer hear those higher registers. Eczema splotches appear on my legs during the winter. Some years ago, something I wore irritated my legs. As a result, I lost most of the hair on my legs below my knee. The hair is not growing back.
Running, my preferred exercise for so many years is now largely out of the question. No matter what shoes I try, it hurts too much. In the best case, the nerves in my feet will tingle for a few hours after a run. In the worst case, the pain in my feet becomes excruciating for several days and my ankles swell up. Even some of the cardiovascular equipment at the gym designed for neutral impact on joints and muscles seems to give me minor inflammation. I am not that fragile, I tell myself. If I am going to work out then I need to work out, damn it. The last advice my doctor is going to give me is to stop exercising. I need to stay in shape and I need good muscle mass to avoid bone density loss as I age. The result of all this healthy physical activity is that I may live to see age 90. Yet it looks like in order to attain this milestone, I must spend inordinate amounts of time exercising when I do not want to do so and eating foods I do not want to eat while dealing with periodic bouts of chronic pain. I suspect if I reach age 90, it will be because I am chained to a treadmill.
I try to comfort myself by thinking, “Well, it could be worse.” There are plenty of examples around me. My wife deals with ten times the physical problems that I do. Somehow, she manages, though she spends much of her life in doctor’s offices and in pain. Watching her go through her issues may be contributing toward my anxieties. Wanting to avoid her issues, I feel like I need to do more of whatever she is not doing.
I can now clearly see my future. I was attached to my mother by umbilical cord before I was born. In my future, I will be attached not just to my doctor, but also to a whole network of specialists and care providers who will charge hefty fees to poke, probe and analyze my body so I will bitch less about my aches and pains. I want the body I had when I was 25, not the body I have now with its middle-aged aches and maladies. I pine for that body. Intellectually I realize I will never have that body again. Emotionally, I refuse to believe it.
When you turn 50, you consent to intrusive tests that you would never have agreed to at 25. Last month I endured a colonoscopy. The risk of colon cancer rises dramatically at age 50. The preparations for the tests were worse than the actual procedure. There was actually one fun part: being put under anesthesia. I was only under for 45 minutes while some extremely advanced gadget danced through my large intestine taking pictures. Nevertheless, I slept with the intensity of a baby. I wished an anesthesiologist could put me to bed every night.
The evidence is overwhelming. I am entropy in action. I can try to make the best with the body I have at this age, but it is unlikely to improve over time. It is likely to get worse. I will find relief in prescriptions but they bring only temporary relief. I need to accept that I am an older American. I need to think, not just about my retirement but about dying and death. I need to ponder what it means to be finite and adjust the rest of my life accordingly. That I cannot seems to cause cognitive dissonance that just makes my problems seem worse.
“It doesn’t get any better,” my sanguine brother in law told me last summer. At age 57 his face is dropping and his joints hurt most of the time. The feeling that he is Dorothy trapped in the Wicked Witch’s castle watching sand move quickly through the hourglass weighs heavily on his mind too.
Perhaps this is why men with the means look for much younger wives. Sometimes I think if Dennis Kucinich, age 61, can attract a babe half his age to be his lawfully wedded wife, maybe I should ditch the one I have too. For if they, being youthful, can love me in spite of my middle age aches and conditions, then perhaps some of their youthful pixie dust will rub off on me, and I will feel spry and youthful again too.
Fortunately, these are fleeting feelings. Age may just be a number, but aging has undeniable consequences. No red headed thirty-year-old vixen can change the fact that I am an aging American. I need to accept my reality and try to make the best of it. I sometimes dully wonder if some virtues will rise that will compensate for my aging. Perhaps I will find them in time.
Right now, I just want the dull pain in my lumbar region to recede.
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